Research News: Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy
By Lauren DeSouza- Master of Public Health, Simon Fraser Public Research University – Canada
Staff Research and Content Writer
© Copyright – SUD RECOVERY CENTERS – A Division of Genesis Behavioral Services, Inc.,
Milwaukee, Wisconsin – July 2021 – All rights reserved.
Please note: While the substances discussed in this article show potential benefits for the treatment
of mental health disorders in clinical settings, they are dangerous to use without the supervision
of a health care provider. They have not been approved for use outside of research studies and
should not be consumed recreationally. The purpose of this article is to inform and educate our
stakeholders about the latest thinking regarding mental health and SUDs. This article does not
endorse use of these substances and does not discuss any therapies that are currently in use at
SUD RECOVERY CENTERS.
Psychedelics, also known as hallucinogens, are a class of psychoactive substances that have
potential to be used as treatments for a variety of mental health disorders.
Commonly-known psychedelics include lysergic acid diethyl-amide (LSD), 3,4-
methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), ayahuasca, and psilocybin, the compound
found in magic mushrooms.
Researchers began studying the possible applications of psychedelics for mental health
disorders in the mid-20th century, but this research was halted with the passing of the
Controlled Substances Act in the early 1970s. Now, the field of psychedelic-assisted
therapy for mental health disorders is once again gaining momentum. Two substances,
MDMA and psilocybin, have been granted a special exemption from the Controlled
Substances Act because they show promise for effectively treating mental health disorders.
In order to get this exemption, the substance must have shown potential to offer substantial
benefits over existing treatment options.
When combined with psychotherapy,
• MDMA has shown potential for treating post-traumatic stress disorder; and,
• Psilocybin has shown potential as a treatment for major depressive disorder (MDD).
Background of Psychedelic- Assisted Therapy
Psychedelics are a diverse class of substances that interact with chemicals in the brain to
alter one’s perceptions of thoughts, feelings, and memories.
Some psychedelics, including LSD and MDMA, are synthesized in a lab; others including
ayahuasca and psilocybin are naturally occurring and found in plants and fungi. These
naturally occurring psychedelics are considered sacred medicines in many cultures in Latin
America and Asia and have been used for physical and emotional healing and spiritual
Psychedelics first gained popularity in the US in the mid-1950s with the use of LSD to
treat conditions including alcohol use disorder, depression, and anxiety. However, when
psychedelics gained popularity in the US as recreational drugs, the federal government
banned them due to health risks. Some recreational users stated that they became
aggressive while using these substances and/or became a risk to themselves or to others.
The side effects that were seen recreationally were not seen in clinical settings, but when
the substances were banned, they could no longer be used in research.
The burden of mental health disorders in the US has persisted, and researchers have begun
studying the potential use of psychedelics again in the hope of finding treatment options
that are more effective and have fewer side effects than the current options.
How can psychedelics be used to treat mental health?
The psychedelic experience may have healing benefits for mental health. Researchers
believe that it allows patients to scan their lives from an outsider’s view and examine their
thoughts, feelings, and memories with a different perspective. This can help them to
explore traumatic experiences from a detached state, gain new insights into past events,
and develop new ways of thinking about and experiencing emotions.
Psilocybin has been studied as an adjunct treatment for tobacco cessation, alcohol
dependence, and anxiety and depression induced by critical illness. Psilocybin affects
serotonin levels in the brain, similar to antidepressants, but it also impacts thought
processes. It produces visual and auditory hallucinations and can lead to introspection,
which, in combination with therapy, can help patients get to the root cause of why they feel
depressed and detach themselves from that feeling.
Psilocybin is currently undergoing clinical trials for use in treating treatment- resistant and
Potential benefit: Research has shown psilocybin to have antidepressant benefits lasting
for over 3 months for many patients.
Potential side effects: So far, side effects from psilocybin have been mild and short-lasting.
These include mild anxiety during dosing, nausea, headaches, and confusion.
MDMA has been studied for many years as a potential treatment for PTSD. MDMA is
considered to have empathy-enhancing effects, which result from the release of various
chemicals in the brain including serotonin, dopamine, prolactin, and oxytocin. It is thought
to enable patients to better tolerate their traumatic memories and be able to examine them
Potential benefit: Patients in clinical trials indicated that MDMA was effective in
alleviating their PTSD symptoms for an average of 3.75 years following treatment.
Potential side effects: Similar to psilocybin, the side effects of clinical use of MDMA were
mild and short-lasting, including anxiety, fatigue, headache, bruxism, and loss of appetite.
How does treatment work?
Clinical studies of MDMA and psilocybin administer the substances in combination with
psychotherapy before and after the dosing session.
Patients first meet with their therapist to prepare for the psychedelic experience over one
or multiple sessions. The dosing session involves giving the patient an oral dose of the
substance and then supervising the patient throughout the experience. The therapists keep
the patient comfortable, and the patient can talk to them if desired. They can also tune out
and travel inward, using eyeshades and music to aid them throughout the experience. The
effects of the substance typically last between 12-24 hours. Following the dosing session,
the there is another psychotherapy session to help the patient integrate their psychedelic
experience and gain maximum treatment benefit.
– Psychedelics have gained popularity in recent years for their potential to treat mental
health disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
– When combined with psychotherapy, these substances may be able to help alleviate
symptoms and challenges associated with mental health disorders.
– Researchers are still studying the use of psychedelics as a treatment, and they are not
approved for recreational use.
Penn, A., Dorsen, C.G., Hope, S., and Rosa, W. (2021). Psychadelic- Assisted Therapy:
Emerging treatments in mental health disorders. American Journal of Nursing 121 (6):34-
Davis, N. (2021). “Magic mushrooms show promise in treatment for depression, study
says.” The Guardian. Published April 14, 2021.